Raiding Tripoli: part three

Here is the latest news in a conflict that spans over three centuries.

by Ian J Byrne

On March 17, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 amidst growing fears that Libyan forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi would slaughter hundreds, if not thousands, of rebel fighters and their supporters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The resolution demands a ceasefire between pro-Gadhafi and rebel forces, imposes a no-fly zone and allows member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack.”

The U.S., along with an international coalition, began enforcing the resolution under the code name Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19. Coalition warplanes and British and American Tomahawk missiles bombarded Libyan air defense and ground forces. It, however, was not the first time that Tripoli, Libya, became the target of U.S. military action.

In fact, Tripoli was the slight of a nascent U.S.âÄôs first overseas military action. At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. stands the Tripoli Monument commemorating the First Barbary War, from 1801-05. The weathered marble monument sits in a courtyard. Admiring it, one can imagine Marines singing, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our countryâÄôs battles; in the air, on land and sea.”

The Mediterranean Sea, from the 16th to early 19th centuries, resembled something far worse than todayâÄôs Somali coast. Pirates from the Barbary States âÄî the Ottoman EmpireâÄôs North African extension in Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis âÄîcaptured ships and enslaved passengers or held them for ransom. The Barbary Bashaws, kings, demanded paid tribute for safe passage through Mediterranean waters.

After President Thomas JeffersonâÄôs inauguration in March 1801, the Bashaw of Tripoli demanded that the U.S. pay a tribute of $225,000. Jefferson had previously advocated not paying tribute and rebuffed Tripoli. On May 14, 1801 the Bashaw cut down the American flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war.

Jefferson sent the navy to the area to protect U.S. ships and enforce a blockade of Tripoli. Thus began the First Barbary War and our first engagement with Tripoli.

For two years the U.S. Navy fought Tripolitan ships to a stalemate. In 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran into a reef off the shore of Tripoli. All 307 U.S. sailors aboard the stranded ship were captured. Tripoli demanded a ransom of $1.69 million for the sailorsâÄô release, which the U. S. declined to pay. Instead, the U.S. continued a campaign of raiding and blockading Tripoli.

The Bashaw grew increasingly weary of raids and, running short on funds, signed a treaty to end the conflict in June 1805. Jefferson also agreed to pay $60,000 for the American sailors. The American victory demonstrated for the first time the U.S.âÄô ability to wage war abroad.

The U.S. military would not be called to fight Libya again for almost 200 years.

In the early hours of April 5, 1986, a bomb ripped through the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, Germany. Three people were killed, including two American soldiers, and 230 people were injured, including 50 American soldiers. Communication intercepts between Tripoli and the Libyan embassy in Germany proved that Libya, under Gadhafi, carried out the attack.

Ten days later Operation El Dorado Canyon commenced. President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of “the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar GadhafiâÄôs subversive activities.” The U.S. took aim at Gadhafi âÄî whom Reagan labeled the “mad dog of the Middle East” at a press conference âÄî bombing his compound at Bab al Azizia just south of Tripoli. Gadhafi escaped unscathed, and the U.N. adopted Resolution 41/38 in November 1986, condemning the American bombing of Libya.

Here we are 25 years later on day 10 of Operation Odyssey Dawn still bombing “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Many Americans are asking: What is the end game? President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the military each defined the mission on different terms with the goal falling into a gray area between humanitarian gestures and regime change.

Obama will address the nation tonight to define the U.S. mission goals. I expect him to state that it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi leave Libya. Ground forces are out of the question, but I hope he states that all other options are on the table for removing Gahdafi. There cannot be an end game where Gadhafi stays in power. Those who voted for Resolution 1973 hedged their bets with the Libyan rebels. You donâÄôt bet on a horse to run half the race.

Libya is following the path of Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries where people are demanding change from long-standing dictatorships. I believe that it is in the U.S.âÄôs long-term interests that countries in the Middle East democratize.

To suggest that Libya, or any country experiencing the “Arab Spring,” will become an Islamist fundamentalist haven, pledging allegiance to al-Qaida, is terribly cynical and does not give the people of the Middle East enough credit. These protesters are rejecting decades of suppression and economic stagnation and putting their lives on the line for a better tomorrow. Had the international community not intervened and Gadhafi succeeded in suppressing the protesters, other regional leaders would take a hint that “might makes right” and follow suit.

The Middle East should be the only ensemble playing the symphony of revolution right now. When the beat is off, though, the least the U.S. can do is wind the metronome.


Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at [email protected].